Safe Work Practices for Wastewater Treatment Plants: How to Protect Your Workforce and Community

Working with wastewater and sewage presents many human health risks without the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Wastewater workers encounter chemicals, bloodborne pathogens, viruses, and many more harmful substances while on the job and while performing typical work duties.

To protect your workforce and maintain in compliance with regulatory standards from entities as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), it is critical to understand what job hazards are present for sanitation and wastewater workers, how to mitigate these hazards, and what types of PPE are best suited for this environment.

What is Wastewater?

Wastewater is used water and sewage. It contains substances including human waste, food scraps, oils, soaps, and chemicals.

Wastewater comes from both commercial and residential settings, including sinks, toilets, washing machines, dishwashers, and showers or bathtubs within private homes and businesses. Virtually every private citizen and industry—including agricultural, healthcare/medical, and construction—contributes to the estimated 18.7 trillion gallons of sewage produced every year in North America.

Storm runoff—water from rain and melting snow that runs off roofs, parking lots, roads, and sidewalks—is also considered a type of wastewater. Storm runoff can easily wash off harmful substances from these surfaces and flow into drains and waterways.

Because wastewater contains a broad range of contaminants and substances, much of this water must be cleaned or "treated" prior to being released back into the environment.

What Does the Wastewater Treatment Industry Do?

The wastewater treatment industry is part of the sanitation industry. The industry's primary aim is to remove as much of the suspended solids (effluent) as possible from used water before returning the water to the environment. Wastewater treatment plants can treat water up to different qualities or degrees in order to satisfy various industry-specific requirements.

In 2020, the global water and wastewater market were valued at just over $263 billion, and is projected to reach a market value of nearly $500 billion by 2028 with a compound annual growth rate of 7.3 percent.

What is the Wastewater Treatment Process and Why Is it Done?

Wastewater treatment involves two main stages, primary treatment and secondary treatment. These treatments are sometimes combined into a single step. The primary treatment uses filtration processes to remove about 60 percent of suspended solids. During this stage, solids are allowed to settle (e.g., in sediment tanks) before being removed. Primary treatment also features aeration, which adds oxygen back into the water.

Secondary treatment removes 85 to 90 percent of suspended solids. In this stage, biological processes, such as trickling filters and more commonly the activated sludge process, are used to enhance water purification.

Why Treat Wastewater?

Wastewater treatment is done to promote human and environmental health. Untreated wastewater can carry diseases, disrupt wildlife habitats, and expose humans, animals, and plant life to toxins, pollutants, excessive nutrients, and other harmful substances. Decaying organic matter also uses up dissolved oxygen found in water, and therefore can deprive fish and other aquatic lifeforms of the oxygen they need to survive.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in untreated wastewater. However, "there is no information to date that anyone has become sick with COVID-19 because of exposure to wastewater." The CDC currently does not recommend any additional COVID-19 specific precautions for people working at wastewater treatment facilities, other than the standard PPE for sewage workers.

Common Hazards Faced by Workers in the Wastewater Industry

Sanitation and wastewater workers face some of the most dangerous occupational hazards in the country. The World Economic Forum ranks wastewater treatment plant operators as eighth in the list of ten most "unhealthy" jobs.

A wastewater worker's typical job duties include operating heavy machinery, working in confined and/or poorly ventilated spaces, and handling or transporting chemicals involved in water processing and treatment. All of these duties come with risks which may increase workers' risk of short- and long-term illness, injury, or even death due to factors such as:

  • Chemicals and contaminants, including reagents used in water processing and treatment
  • Biological organisms including parasites, fungi, viruses, bacteria, other blood-borne pathogens, and even disease-carrying rodents and other animals
  • Fumes
  • Explosions
  • Electricity exposure
  • Fires
  • Wet floors, ponds, and other areas of standing water
  • Heavy machinery
  • Confined spaces, such as trenches, vats, and tanks with poor ventilation
  • Heights, such as ladders

These and other occupational hazards can lead to a range of injuries or illnesses, including:

  • Skin, eye, and/or respiratory irritation due to chemical splashes, fume inhalation, etc.
  • Burns and disfigurement from chemicals or flames
  • Cuts, wounds, and limb loss/accidental amputations from sharp tools and equipment
  • Acute poisoning
  • Accidental drowning (e.g., in treatment ponds, vats, or clarifiers)
  • Blunt force trauma due to slips, trips, falls, and being struck or trapped by moving or falling objects
  • Electric shock
  • Chronic diseases including allergies, dermatitis, and respiratory conditions

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), safety trends are improving within the water and sewage industry, with 3 nonfatal injuries or illnesses reported per 100 workers in 2017 compared to more than 5 cases per 100 workers in 2008. However, these rates continue to match or exceed the nonfatal illness and injury rates for all industries combined.

OSHA standards for wastewater practices are described in a variety of regulations, including 29 CFR 1910 for general industries, 29 CFR 1926 Subpart AA for confined spaces, and 29 CFR 1910.1030 for bloodborne pathogen standards (which pertain specifically to employees in wastewater treatment plants).

Wastewater treatment facilities who wish to remain in compliance with OSHA regulations must prepare written programs, provide ongoing worker training, conduct routine tests and audits, and (depending on company size) keep detailed records, among other practices.

PPE for Sanitation Workers and General Safety Precautions for the Wastewater Industry

Proper PPE for sanitation workers is essential for promoting wastewater treatment safety. All workers who handle sewage and are involved in water treatment processes must not only have the correct PPE at their disposal, but must also be properly trained in the donning, doffing, storage, and/or disposal of their PPE.

At a minimum, OSHA and the CDC advises the following PPE for sewage workers:

  • Goggles
  • Face mask or splash-proof face shield (to protect the nose and mouth)
  • Waterproof gloves that do not obstruct a worker's dexterity
  • Rubber boots (boot and shoe covers may also be beneficial to further reduce exposure and prevent contamination)

PPE used by sanitation workers should be intact and free of rips, tears, and other types of damage, and should also not impair a worker's dexterity or ability to perform his or her typical work duties.

In addition to proper PPE usage, the CDC also recommends additional general safety precautions for sanitation workers. For example, workers should be up to date on immunizations in accordance with local health guidelines (vaccine-preventable illness exposure may vary by location). Common immunizations recommended for sanitation workers include tetanus, Hepatitis A, and Hepatitis B.

Wastewater workers should be sufficiently and routinely trained on illness and injury mitigation protocols, including how to don and doff PPE, how to flush eyes after accidental exposure, and when and how to seek out medical attention following known or suspected exposure.

Finally, wastewater workers should be well-versed in general hygiene strategies, which include but are not limited to:

  • Washing hands with soap and water before eating or drinking, before and after using the toilet, and before and after donning PPE
  • Not touching the face, mouth, eyes, nose, or cuts while handling wastewater
  • Not smoking or chewing tobacco while handling wastewater
  • Removing soiled work clothes before eating, and only eating in designated areas
  • Removing boots and work clothes before leaving the worksite


The wastewater industry is an integral component of public health and environmental protection strategies. BLS data suggests that workplace safety within this industry has improved in recent years. However, wastewater treatment remains one of the more dangerous jobs in the United States, resulting in both fatal and nonfatal injuries and illnesses every year.

To improve worker safety, reduce the risk of contamination, and protect local communities and the greater environment, all sanitation workers must have access to appropriate PPE at all times. Workers must be properly trained in how to use, don, and doff this PPE, maintain basic personal hygiene, and perform their job duties with great care. Employers within the wastewater industry must also do their part, by providing ongoing training and ensuring their company meets regulations set by local, state, and national authorities.

For the wellbeing of your staff—and the good standing of your company—it is essential to uphold best-practice OSHA standards for wastewater treatment plants. This starts with high-quality and cost-effective PPE. To explore PPE options for your sanitation or wastewater plant employees, contact International Enviroguard today or call us at 1-866-734-3523.